TAMH: Source Material
Arbroath Harbour 1895-6 from Arbroath Year Book, 1896 - 1| 2| 3| 4| 5| 6| 7

Annual 1985

David G. Adams Reviews the Heyday of


The boom years and the dominance of

the Stephen family

Just as shipbuilding in the early days was mainly in the hands of the Kennys, so in the boom period of the early 19th century, although there were always two and, intermittently three builders active, the Stephen family

Picture inset: Alexander Stephen (1795 - 1875)

built more and larger vessels than the others.

William Stephen, son of an Aberdeen shipbuilder, recently released from French captivity, took over the site Kenny had occupied from 1814. He may have been the first to enclose a yard. Woods Town Plan of Arbroath of 1822 shows three ranges of sheds.

Stephen began in a period of high demand, but half his vessels were for Dundee or Perth owners. In the period 1807 - 13 an average of two vessels annually had been built in Arbroath. Production leapt to six vessels in 1815; three sloops, two brigs and a schooner, probably half at least built by Stephen, but this declined to one vessel annually by the early 1820's, afterwards averaging three or four, occasionally five per year, until about 1840.

Schooners seem to have comprised two-thirds of the vessels built from 1815 to the 1830's.

Alexander Stephen built one of 216 tons n 1825, a local record when the largest otherwise were about 130 tons and the average was about 80 tons the smallest being little bigger than 50 ton sloops.

Picture inset: The brig 'Neva' of Dundee, built by Stephen in the 1840s. Similar vessels were constructed at Arbroath yards for the Baltic trade.

William Blair, in the period 1827-31, built two schooners annually, plus an odd sloop of brig. George Dickie also built two, between 1819 and 21. William Stephen, however, managed to get into debt, and creditors took over the yard late in 1828, the last two vessels being completed in 1829. He died on December 8 that year, and was buried in an iron coffin made by his own smiths, a precaution against the prevalence of grave-robbing at the time.

William Stephen's brother, Alexander, took over his yard from 1830 and the firm of Alexander Stephen and Sons was clearly the leading builder until 1843, building 32 vessels of which a third were schooners of about 140 tons and over a third brigs and snows ranging from 90 to 250 tons. A couple of sloops were also built by Stephen and four barques up to 308 tons. the first of these was the Anne of 207 tons in 1838 for Charles Kidd and Co., of Arbroath.

Stephen were the only builders of barques until 1851. These were the largest type of vessel operated locally, initially of around 250 tons, three-masted with the mizzen schooner-rigged not to be confused with the tiny barks of the 17th century. In the period 1835-42 Arthur Smith built smaller vessels, schooners under 100 tons as well as brigs and a snow of 200-odd tons.

As well as introducing barques, Alexander Stephen seems to have built the first full-rigged ship in 1839, the John Mitchell of 402 tons for a Glasgow owner of that name. this was the largest vessel to be built until another ship was completed in 1852. According to one source, the John Mitchell was a schooner but local schooners were 160 tons at the largest, averaging 100 tons or less. In 1841 Stephen performed a considerable feat by converting the barque Leipzig bought in Hull in 1838 for £1,150. He had it dragged up the slipway by cables and crabwinches cut in half and lengthened by 13 feet. His father had performed a similar feat in Aberdeen when other shipbuilders had declared it impossible. The Leipzig continued to sail from Arbroath until 1851.

Picture inset: The barque Leipzig which was cut in half and lengthenend by 13 feet by Stephen's yard at Arbroath in 1838. Picture inset:

This view, taken from Signal Tower, again about the turn of the century shows the site thought to have been occupied by Stephen and later Dickie & Reidman, and which closed about 1853. Boatbuilding is still carried on at this location by Gerrard Brothers. Picture courtesy Signal Tower Museum.

The Stephen's all had their own vessels in the timber trade sailing to the Baltic, The Thames and Italy for oak, to America and Scandinavia for pine, Canada for elm and Burma for teak. About 1840, Stephen lost the northern part of his yard (now the lorry park) for a rail link between the Forfar and Dundee railways and built a new yard adjacent to the Signal Tower. In 1843 he opened the Panmure yard at Dundee and gave up his interests in Arbroath. Half the vessels he had built had been for Dundee and Glasgow owners, so he had never been entirely dependent on local demand. Alexander also began to build on the Clyde in 1850 by 1875 having founded one of t he greatest of all British shipbuilding concerns.

William Stephen, Alexander's nephew, son of the earlier William, took over the Arbroath yard and completed his first vessel in 1845. n a few years he had paid back a loan of £400 to his uncle and by 1850 had also bought a house in Ladyloan overlooking the shipyard.

Between 1840 and the early 1860's, an average of five vessels annually were produced at Arbroath, with a peak of eight in 1851 by a succession of builders, sometimes as many as three annually as in the years circa 1844 -60.

Repairs would have been an important activity much of the time, even for the more important builders.

In the period 1844 - 50 there was a concentration on brigs for the Baltic trade, Stephen building 11 and one schooner. William Anderson, seven with a snow and schooner; and Deck & Reidman four plus two schooners and a smack.

As the average size of vessels used grew, a spate of barques followed in 1851, Stephen alone building four, and Dickie & Reidman and Chisholm Simpson and Peters, who commenced that year, building one each. Quite a few barques were built n succeeding years along with a variety of other vessels, James Drummond building one annually between 1857 - 59.

William Stephen not only had the largest output, but broke local records in the 1850's with the full-rigged ships, Elizabeth (584/442 tons) in 1852; Varoon (595 tons) in 1853, and Neville (714/830 tons) and with the huge barque Albatross (620 tons) in 1856. Only Chisholm, Simpson and Peters built a vessel approaching these, the ship Dawstone (541 tons) in 1853. All these were for owners in Dundee, Aberdeen and Liverpool.

Until the late 1860's when some barques of about 350 tons were used locally all vessels over 300 tons were built for outsiders.

William Stephen died in 1857, aged only 39.